Identifying Individual Humpback Whales

Mother and Calf

Cajun and her calf “fluking”.  Photographing individual whales and their calves each year helps to identify family relationships. Four generations of humpback whales have been documented in certain maternal lines, or “matrilines”.




Photo: Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC)

Photo: Deborah Glockner-Ferrai



Since the early 1970s, humpback whales in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, and elsewhere in the Gulf of Maine, have been photographed and assigned a catalog number.


Photo-identification enables scientists to identify an individual humpback whale—anywhere it may travel, throughout its life—by comparing the black and white pigmentation patterns on the underside of the flukes, the two wings of the tail.  These markings include both natural pigmentation and scars.


When new photographs of humpback tail flukes are received, they are matched against the photographs in the existing North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue maintained by Allied Whale at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, USA.  Information about each whale sighting (such as date, time, location) is kept in a database.  Using these kinds of data, we have learned that humpbacks mature no earlier than four years of age, may have calves every two years, travel to the Caribbean in winter to mate and give birth, and appear to return to the same northern feeding area each summer.


By cataloging individual humpback whales, scientists can monitor individual animals and gather valuable information about population sizes and migration patterns. Information gained from the Catalog helps advance understanding of marine mammal conservation and habitat protection, raise public awareness, and motivate marine mammal conservation action and stewardship.


Currently, there is limited information about specific or preferred breeding areas for this population in the Eastern Caribbean.

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